Farmers’ markets gaining popularity
By Michael Zimmerman
They were a common sight in the United States before the Industrial Age: farmers’ markets. Then, the direct farmer-to-consumer relationship was filled with the middleman of grocery stores and supermarkets.
Today, supermarkets encompass many things like clothes, DVDs, clothing supplies, and medicine. Many local farmers’ markets went by the wayside. Some outdoor markets stood the test of time, such as Cincinnati’s Findlay Market, Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the aptly-named Farmers’ Market in Los Angeles, but largely the idea of farmers selling directly to consumers was gone.
However, the idea of farmers’ markets has become more popular in recent decades due to increased demand for fresh, locally-grown foods and an increase in popularity of organically grown foods.
Preble County lays claim to two such farmers’ markets. West Alexandria’s Celebration Committee is in the second year of its farmers’ market, which is from 5–7 p.m. at Peace Park in the village every Thursday evening from May through September. Eaton’s farmers’ market is from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday from May through September.
In today’s world, people generally buy produce from a corner of display cases with automatic waterers or wrapped in cellophane. Those fruits and vegetables are tossed into a metal cage on wheels and run across a conveyor belt before being taken home. Farmers’ markets offer a different, and some say, more personal way to purchase fruits, vegetables, baked goods, and any number of other products. Both Eaton and West Alexandria feature a booth of grass-fed beef, blankets, plastic containers. You’ll find a lot more that just fruits and vegetables at these local markets. Most importantly, you’ll find the ability to interact with the people who are actually growing the food you’re purchasing. To speak to the people growing the produce at the supermarket, you’d have to buy a plane ticket. The fact that the food is locally-grown affects the taste, according to Eaton’s farmers’ market manager Charlie Cressell.
“Number one with farmers’ markets is most of your produce is grown locally,” he said. “On average, in the supermarkets, it travels 1,500 miles. You get melons from down south. You don’t get them from around here. And especially in the wintertime, what it’s done is it’s traveled 1,500 miles. What they’ve done is, they’ve grown melons or tomatoes or whatever produce for sustainability in shipping. Not for taste. That’s why, if you taste a tomato in the wintertime, the skin is so thick. There’s hardly any taste to the tomato. There’s hardly any taste to the melon. They’ve grown it for ship-ability, not for taste. At the farmers market, most of this local produce is grown for taste, and it tastes two times better. It’s like growing in your own garden.”
The physical interaction with people is what makes farmers’ markets a special experience, rather than loading a cart with bags and boxes and filing out through a checkout line. “I think it’s brought community spirit a little bit,” said West Alexandria farmers’ market organizer Deb Smith. “People do come out. People can’t wait to get here and get Cheryl’s apple dumplings on Thursday night. She’s coming up with sugar-free pies. There’s normally a Tupperware lady here. There are a lot of different things, and a lot of people come down just to hang out, talk with us, talk with the vendors.”
“People like coming here,” Cressell said. “It’s not just buying. It’s also a social event. If you sit and watch, you’ll see a lot of people come up here just to see each other. That’s the reason why I like it so well.”
According to Cressell, the whole idea behind farmers’ markets is a microcosm of the spirit of the United States.
“The thing about a farmers market is the vendors and the customers are face-to-face, and they get to know that vendor like a friend,” he said.
“I’ve got people that know me by my first name, and they talk to me just like I see them every day. The one thing I love about it is the people, because I’m a people person. Even if I only had tomatoes to sell, I would make sure I was here every Saturday, because of the interaction with people. It’s the truest form of what the founding fathers envisioned for America. Obama, like every president before him, always talks about community, and this is the purest form of it right here. People come to the farmers market, intermingle with the vendors, intermingle amongst themselves. It’s, to me, it’s what America is. It’s small-town people, people from all walks of life. There’s gay people, people of different races, religions, all different people, and they intermingle, and there’s no junk going on.”
Cressell farms six acres on Preble County Line Road near Brookville, Ohio, and he farms all six acres organically. Although he’s only been selling at the Eaton farmers’ market for four years, he’s been farming organically for 40 years, and he learned everything from his grandfather. “My grandfather taught me from way back,” Cressell said. “On his own property, he never used any chemical fertilizer. He had five different fruit trees, apple trees. On each tree, he grafted five different types of apples, and on five trees, he had five different types of apples. He was amazing. I was amazed by what my grandfather did. He took the time to teach me how he did things.”
Organic farming used to be called just “farming,” until after World War II, according to Cressell. That was when farmers began using chemicals to farm, and what’s known today as “organic farming” disappeared.
“Chemical farmers use chemicals like sodium chloride, man-made fertilizers, which started back in World War II. That’s when they had all these chemicals they used for munitions, and when the war was over, they didn’t know what to do with them. Well, they started experimenting with them, and found out they were good fertilizers. That started the revolution of chemical farming, and we did not know the long-term consequences of using it until now. The last few years, they’re starting to find out a lot of our cancers, a lot of even some mental instability, things like that, are related to chemicals that you eat in your food. Chemicals you put on your lawn are very dangerous.”
Cressell said organic farming, in addition to not using man-made chemicals, is a more hands-on type of farming, and it is less harmful to the soil than chemical farming. Organic farming brings back old ideas such as crop rotation, which Cressell says is better than feeding crops with chemicals.
“They went away from the farming practice of rotating,” he said. “A lot of organics is rotating your vegetables so the pest doesn’t know that the plant isn’t there anymore and it dies. That’s how you combat pests a lot. I don’t plant tomatoes in the same spot for five years. I don’t plant any of my vegetables in the same spot they’ve grown for five years. When (pests) come up in the warm months, and the plant isn’t there, they die.”
He continued: “I used to not say too much about the conventional farmers, but I’ve seen what’s going on with the soil the more I’ve investigated around. Every farmer I talk to says, ‘Well, I can’t farm that way.’ I have stats that shows you farms out west that grow corn and soybeans and wheat the organic way, and the yields are better. That’s not been necessarily true for a long time, but organics has taken a big step in research, and they’ve found ways organically to grow things. The thing about it is you’re replenishing the soil when you grow organic. Instead of using the soil, you’re building the soil. That is a resource you can’t waste is soil.”
Organic farming and farmers’ markets go hand-in-hand. Both are considered “old-fashioned,” and to those involved, organic farming and farmers’ markets are the better way to go. If the number of vendors and patrons are any indication, an increasing number of people share that view.
“Last year, we probably had seven to 10 vendors,” Smith said. “We’ve got 22 registered vendors this year. We charged $20 for the whole year this year, and that was to go to our Fourth of July fireworks, which is the first year the village has had fireworks on Fourth of July in 43 years.
“We have a lot of people come through. There are people who stay and mingle, but we also have people that just pull up on Route 35. They’ll park, get out, get what they need, get back in, and go. We’ve added some entertainment this year, and we’ve had some people hanging around a little bit more. I had a customer at the garage that told me, ‘We live in Brookville, but we’re here every Thursday for the farmers’ market.’”
Shopping locally at farmers’ markets is an increasingly popular trend, and for those interested in the idea, there’s still a few more months to check out Preble County’s markets.